The 14-time Olympic gold medalist freely admits he hates to lose, so news of the Australian’s return couldn’t have come as any better motivation for training.
Thorpe, who dominated swimming immediately before Phelps took the spotlight and raised to unprecedented levels, beat him in their only serious contest over the 200-meter freestyle; the 2004 Olympic final which has been dubbed the “race of the century.”
“He and I only raced once over the 200 free. Having the opportunity to race somebody like him again—maybe in the 200 freestyle—I think will be super fun,” Phelps said in an interview at the U.S. team’s pre-world championship training camp on Australia’s Gold Coast.
“I’ve never had the chance and hopefully we get the chance over the next year.”
Thorpe won that 200 final in Athens, with Dutch swimmer Pieter van den Hoogenband second and Phelps third. But that was well before Phelps established himself as the world’s greatest swimmer.
The man dubbed Thorpedo quit swimming in 2006, two years after his last major meet and prematurely ending a career that five Olympic gold medals, 11 world titles and 13 world records.
He was working in Beijing as an analyst when he publicly doubted it was possible for Phelps’ to break the record haul of seven gold medals Mark Spitz won at the 1972 Olympics. After Phelps won his eighth, Thorpe was among the first to offer his congratulations.
“When he retired I didn’t think it was true and I didn’t think it was real,” Phelps said. “But he found a hunger to want to come back and want to do it again. I’m excited. Having somebody like him back in the sport is going to be a lot more exciting.
“It’s amazing to have Thorpie back. He’s the kind of person who if he wants to do something he’s going to make sure he will get it done.”
The 200 freestyle is among the four individual events Phelps will swim at the world championships in Shanghai later this month.
Thorpe wants to swim the 100 and 200 freestyle at the London Olympics, but wasn’t eligible for the world championships because he only formalized his comeback in February; not enough pre-meet competition to clear doping hurdles.
Phelps had some downtime after the 2009 world championships, saying he was more interested in being lazy and playing golf than doing hard work outs and had to be dragged “kicking and screaming” to training.
His golf handicap didn’t improve, but his attitude toward swimming did when he worked out what he needed to do to win more Olympic titles in London. After almost nine years unbeaten in the 200 butterfly, he lost three straight races at the distance to further sharpen his focus. Now he is primed for the big meets.
“I needed to get out of that funk when I did because if I didn’t I think it would have been too late,” he said. “I have a lot of personal things I want to accomplish. Whether it’s times, records, medals anything. I know what I want to do … (and) If I do, you’ll be able to tell what it is.”
The only thing he’d give away was that he won’t be aiming to match his medal haul from Beijing: “It won’t be eight, though, I tell you that.”
Thorpe is one of a host of veteran swimmers coming out of retirement.
American Natalie Coughlin took a career break after winning six medals in Beijing, and now is back for her first major meet and was on the Gold Coast with Phelps and the rest of the U.S. squad.
And while she’s using the world championships as a barometer for her comeback and her preparations for next year’s Olympics, she doesn’t think the likes of Thorpe will miss anything by not competing in Shanghai.
“I don’t think so. I’m excited about what’s going to happen in the next few weeks, but my main goals and all of my focus and training and everything is leading up to next year,” she said. “Libby (Trickett) and Thorpie, they’re seasoned competitors. They know what to do. They’re just as focussed on London as I am.”